Personal LifeAugustine …57
Lady Sarashina …65
The Thousand and One Nights …73
Christine de Pisan and The Goodman of Paris …81
P eople in the modern West—that is, Europe and the countries influenced by European civilization—tend to hold certain views on human personality and feelings. Typically, Westerners place a high emphasis on the individual: each person is unique and special, they would say, with a right to choose their own destiny. Yet as obvious as this viewpoint might seem to most Americans, it is far from universal. In many parts of the world today, people hold a strikingly different view of the individual: in several non-Western societies, submission to parents, teachers, and rulers is encouraged while self-interest or individual expression is discouraged. Nor has the West always been so oriented toward the self or the individual; these concepts have only come to the fore-front of Western thinking in recent centuries.
In part for this reason, the Confessions of Augustine (aw-GUS-tin; 354–430) is considered one of the greatest works of Western literature. Here, in a work so old it almost qualifies as ancient rather than medieval, is a view of the self—including inner struggles of right and wrong within the soul—familiar to modern readers. This is all the more remarkable when one considers the few deeply personal writings that preceded it, and the even fewer ones that followed it for a thousand years. Outside of certain passages in the Bible, it is hard to find ancient literature that asks probing personal questions, or that expresses feelings from the bottom of the heart; nor would such intensely introspective (inward-looking) literature appear again until the 1500s or later.
The diary of Lady Sarashina (1009–1059), for instance, while clearly quite personal, is far outside the Western idea of self-analysis. Her expressions of her own feelings are muted, meaning that she does not state them plainly, but instead discusses a fleeting romance of her younger years in language that requires one to read between the lines. In fact this represents an attitude still common in Japan and other lands of East Asia, where people consider it rude to speak bluntly and directly. But, looking deeply into Lady Sarashina's recollections, one can find a tale of romance and unfulfilled longing.
King Shahriyar (SHAR-ee-yar) had to deal with difficulties in his love life, but the presentation of his story in The Thousand and One Nights could hardly be classified as a heartfelt tale of personal pain. That is not its purpose; rather, the story of King Shahriyar—how he came to distrust all women, and therefore decreed that he would sleep with a new wife each night, and have her beheaded the next morning—merely serves as a "frame" for some of the most exciting adventure tales of all time.
Audiences around the world have long enjoyed the yarns contained in The Thousand and One Nights, sometimes known as The Arabian Nights—among them "Ala-ed-Din [Aladdin] and the Wonderful Lamp," "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," and "Sinbad the Sailor." Almost as famous, however, is the "frame story" which provides a context for all the other tales. This is the saga of Shahrazad (SHAR-uh-zahd), or Sheherezade, the young bride who outwitted Shahriyar by telling him an enthralling tale each night, and saving the end for the following evening—at which time she would begin a new story as soon as she had finished the one before. Thus she saved her own life and that of other women, and won Shahriyar's love in the process.
Though The Thousand and One Nights offers a number of insights on male-female relations in the Muslim world, it is still pure fantasy. By contrast, the advice to women offered in the writings of Christine de Pisan (pee-ZAHN; 1364–c.1430) and The Goodman of Paris —written by an anonymous Paris merchant in the 1390s—is quite practical and down-to-earth. Christine, the most well known female author of medieval times, wrote from the viewpoint of a woman, and offered women guidelines on how to manage their homes; the author of The Goodman, by contrast, wanted his wife to submit to his authority while performing her wifely duties. Along with the excerpts that precede them, these two writings present a varied look at personal life—and particularly the relations of men and women—during the Middle Ages.